The work of the Commissioners has its origins in the Agreement reached on Good Friday (10 April) 1998 between the participants in the multi-party negotiations, subsequently endorsed by referendums on both sides of the border.

The part of the Agreement dealing with prisoners committed both Governments to putting in place mechanisms to provide for an accelerated programme for the release of prisoners convicted of scheduled offences in Northern Ireland or of similar offences elsewhere. The arrangements were to protect the rights of individual prisoners under national and international law.

The Agreement provided that prisoners affiliated to organisations that had not established, or were not maintaining, complete and unequivocal ceasefires were to be excluded from benefiting from the arrangements.

The British Government gave effect to these arrangements by the introduction of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, which received Royal Assent on 28 July 1998. The Act made provision for the appointment of Sentence Review Commissioners and established their statutory function which was to assess cases on an individual basis against the statutory criteria set out in the Act.

In 1998 the Secretary of State appointed two joint chairmen Brian Currin, a South African human rights lawyer and Sir John Blelloch, a retired senior NIO civil servant and eight other Commissioners to serve as Sentence Review Commissioners in Northern Ireland. The current chairperson of the Commissioners, Ms Clodach Mc Grory BL, was appointed by the Secretary of State in January 2013.